Looking for Bomma

James Clifford

  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh
    Granta, 400 pp, £6.99, February 1994, ISBN 0 14 014017 4

In his novel, The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of an Indian family whose members cross and recross two geopolitical borders. One border joins and divides Calcutta and London, the other Calcutta and Dhaka. Toward the end of the book the narrator’s failing grandmother prepares for a return visit to the city she left, years before, when India was partitioned: Dhaka, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It is only a short flight from Calcutta. The old woman asks whether she will see the border from the plane. Her son tells her that it won’t look like a map, with different colours on either side of a dark line. ‘But surely,’ the old woman persists, ‘there’s something – trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of land. Don’t they call it no man’s land?’ Her son laughs: ‘No you won’t be able to see anything except clouds and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some green fields.’ She remains puzzled:

But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference, both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without any body stopping us. What was it all for then – Partition and all the killing and everything – if there isn’t something in between?

A moral puzzlement over borders informs all of Ghosh’s portrayals of entangled worlds: intricate novels, critical travel writing, and now In an Antique Land – part travel memoir, part archival detective story, and part experiment in multi-locale ethnography. Its title is drawn ironically from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, although the Egyptian past unearthed by Ghosh differs sharply from the sublime antiquities of European Romanticism. In an Antique Land reaches back to a 12th-century cosmopolitan world linking Arabs, Jews and South Asians, a world not yet structured by five hundred years of Western economic and cultural expansion. Ghosh recovers, for use now, a submerged tradition of contacts between South Asia and the Middle East. And this past situates, in a sense authorises, his own late 20th-century ethnography: a series of disturbing encounters with worldly peasants in the Nile Delta. Ghosh’s poignant, tragic, sometimes hilarious account connects the time of the Crusaders and Ibn Battuta with current labour migrations and the Gulf War. In the face of brutal geopolitical divisions it rescues a vision of human crossings in the borderlands, shards for a prehistory of post-colonialism.

As a graduate student in social anthropology at Oxford in 1978, Ghosh wrestled with the perennial question of where to do fieldwork. An Indian, contemplating research in another Third World country, he found the traditional reasons for selecting a field site – personal attraction, adventure, relevance to a theoretical problem, an adviser’s connections – no longer sufficient. Indeed, he no longer accepted the right of researchers based in metropolitan centres to live and study virtually anywhere. In the wake of anti-colonial movements, this access to the world’s cultures, long claimed in the name of disinterested scholarship, seemed a form of Western privilege. In fact, the freedom of scientific fieldworkers – anthropological, archaeological, natural scientific – had always been guaranteed by mundane relations of power. Science seldom travelled independently, but followed established routes, most often those of trade and flag. Whatever exceptions one might find to this general pattern, the path from Oxford to the ‘Middle East’ was particularly well-mapped in imperial terms. Were any other routes available to a Third World anthropologist passing through Britain?

Ghosh came across a collection entitled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, edited and translated by S.D. Goitein, the great historian of Mediterranean Jewish societies. The book contains a letter written in 1148, from Aden, to Abraham Ben Yiju, a merchant living in Mangalore on the Malabar Coast of India. The letter contains greetings for Ben Yiju’s slave, a trusted commercial agent who travelled more than once to the Middle East on his master’s business. ‘The Slave of MS H.6’, as Ghosh provisionally calls him, is an elusive presence in an elaborate correspondence linking the Mediterranean, Fustat (Old Cairo) and South India. Closing Goitein’s collection, Ghosh felt an obscure permission to do fieldwork in Egypt: ‘I knew nothing then about the Slave of MS H.6 except that he had given me the right to be there, a sense of entitlement.’ The Third World anthropologist now conceives his research as extending a long history of intercultural relations, contacts not defined by European expansion or the dichotomy of East and West.

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